MORGAN, Minn. — Doug Woizeschke isn't a farmer, but the Windom man claims that he's been to Farmfest every year since the first one in 1972.
"Yup, every single year," Woizeschke said with a laugh on Wednesday, as he watched a demonstration of Cowbot, an autonomous pasture mower. "But this one does feel special."
Farmfest is back after taking last year off, save for a handful of virtual forums, due to the coronavirus.
Thousands of farmers, representatives of dozens of agriculture-related businesses and nonprofits, politicians and the ag-curious visited this 50-acre site in Redwood County this week for product demonstrations and sales, a series of ag-focused forums, pork chops on sticks and beef sandwiches, and networking.
"It's a chance to see all the latest and greatest in agriculture," said Kent Thiesse, an agricultural loan officer from Lake Crystal who organizes the forums. "But I think even more than that, it's a chance to get together. Farming can be a solitary line of work, and this is a chance for farmers to make connections with each other, talk about this year's crop and the weather and whatever else."
Cowbot, which sweeps across fields like a giant Roomba and has safety bumpers that turn it off if it runs into something, is a collaboration between the Toro Co. and the University of Minnesota's West Central Research and Outreach Center. Woizeschke, who's retired from a career at Toro, said that since the Minnesota State Fair ditched Machinery Hill, Farmfest is about the only place where he can check out heavy equipment up close.
The first Farmfest, one of a small handful of agriculture shows nationwide put on by the American Farm Bureau Federation, was held at a site near Vernon Center. The next one was in 1976 in Lake Crystal, and old-timers are still talking about that one. "Jimmy Carter came when he was running for president, and Bob Hope performed," Thiesse said.
The next Farmfest was in 1981, and they've been held continuously ever since. It's been at its current site, about 10 miles southeast of Redwood Falls, since 1988.
Organizers said recent years saw around 25,000 visitors over the three days of Farmfest. Officials with IDEAg, which runs Farmfest for the Farm Bureau, did not have visitor numbers for this year as of Wednesday, but both Tuesday and Wednesday saw good-sized crowds.
"In previous years we've done $100,000 to $200,000 in sales here," said Jason Kruger, manager of Graham Tire in Marshall, which sells tires for trucks, tractors and other farm vehicles. It probably won't be as lucrative this year, he said — as in many retail sectors, manufacturers are backlogged and having trouble fulfilling orders.
That may have led some ag-related businesses to opt out this year. Kruger has been selling tires at Farmfest for 10 years, and said he was struck this year by a notably smaller vendor presence.
Still, the myriad businesses and services on hand made for a diverse lineup. In one commerce tent alone, Farmfest visitors could buy garage doors and flagpoles, moisturizer lotion and MyPillows. They could talk to attorneys and crop insurance agents or learn about grain dust suppression systems and disc sharpening technology.
"This is how a cookie would have been made 100 years ago," said Brian LaPlante, as he handed out chocolate-chocolate chip cookies made with a sourdough fermentation process.
LaPlante is co-owner of Back When Foods, a small specialty foods business in the northwestern Minnesota town of Fisher. He was working a table in the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, a state-funded entity that works on helping farmers add value to their production and diversifying the ag landscape.
LaPlante said the goal of his fermentation process, which he's using to make bagels, English muffins and cookies, is finding more uses for wheat products that can be consumed by wheat-sensitive eaters. He wants to restore lost market share and get more acres into wheat production. LaPlante hopes to have products in stores in the Twin Cities soon, and is working on developing a pasta.
Innovation and the promise of new technologies were a consistent theme of Farmfest's forums and many of its exhibits, but so were the challenges and struggles of making a living from farming. "We have to save the small family farm," said American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, who spoke at a forum on Tuesday alongside his National Farmer's Union counterpart, Rob Larew.
"We have the last dairy farm in our township. There used to be a bunch of them," said Max Radil, who retired at the beginning of the year from the fifth-generation operation in Douglas County's Lake Mary Township that he runs with his brothers and nephews.
As farm operations consolidate around the state and country, barriers to entering farming are getting higher. A particular challenge — and a hot issue right now in agriculture — is in creating opportunities for people of color who are interested in farming.
Patrice Bailey, an assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, was hanging out at the Farmer's Union booth on Tuesday. He noted one thing that he saw very little of at Farmfest: people of color.
"I think we're missing a population that wants to be in agriculture," said Bailey, who's the highest-ranking person of color in the Ag Department's history. The agency recently got a pot of money from the Legislature to hire a dedicated staffer to work with emerging farmers.
"These are people who are cut off from the normal channels into farming because of lack of land access, finances, language barriers, lack of the right relationships," Bailey said. "We need to come up with some nontraditional ways to get some folks here who've never seen anything like this before."